The Cure for Meaninglessness
by Pastor Andy Kern, Dean of Academics
Estimated Time to Read: 11 Minutes
The human heart desperately needs a sense of purpose, identity, and destiny.
People mostly look for these things in the wrong places. We travel down pathways in life looking for answers and come up empty and frustrated. Some have sought great heights of success in the business world, climbing to the top of the corporate ladder only to find loneliness. Some have delved into academia and intellectualism to find prestige and honor, but are still left with unanswerable questions. Some have excelled in athletics or other physical capabilities, but find that time takes its toll and mortality catches up with us all.
The pain, disappointment, and frustration that comes from a lack of fulfillment lead many to numb themselves, turning to substances or other means to soothe the insatiable longing of the heart. No matter the path taken, the world cannot provide ultimate meaning.
Only Jesus Christ can give purpose to life, providing us with an identity in Him and an eternal destiny with Him. He alone can meet the needs of the heart and bring true and lasting fulfillment to each one’s life.
Nearly three thousand years ago King Solomon sought meaning to life in the world around him, drifting from God and leaving Him out of the picture. Solomon’s vain search is the subject of the book of Ecclesiastes. He learned that life without God is empty.
I believe Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes toward the end of his life, providing final words of wisdom to pass down to subsequent generations. The book title comes from the Greek word ecclesiastes, meaning one who addresses an assembly. This was the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew word qoheleth, referring to a preacher or teacher, which is how the author identified himself (Eccl. 1:1). The author was “the son of David, king of Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:1), and one who “gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem” (Eccl. 1:16). Of course, Solomon was the son of David who reigned after his father, and he was blessed by God to possess wisdom beyond any other person (1 Kings 3:12), except Christ Himself.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes his intense search for that which all souls seek, meaning and satisfaction in life. He begins with the declaration, “’Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’” (Eccl. 1:1). The word translated vanity is the Hebrew word hebel, meaning vapor or empty.
The idea of vanity in this book is that of emptiness or futility. A way to visualize this word is to picture yourself trying to grab hold of the wind and then finding your hands still empty. Solomon tried to grab hold of meaning in the things of this earthly life, without God, and kept coming up empty. Unfortunately, Solomon did not learn this great life lesson through his wisdom or his walk with God, but by painful experience. He chose to explore different pathways of life apart from God to see if purpose and fulfillment could be found.
Solomon sought to answer the question, “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3). In other words, what is the point of life? He searched for the meaning of life “under the sun,” a phrase found repeatedly throughout the book. This indicates that he limited his search to the things of the world and left God out of the equation. He searched for fulfillment in his earthly life and found that nothing could satisfy the longing of his heart. In this book Solomon explains with regret that he wasted much of his life in empty pursuits, and as he does so he warns the reader against living for the things of the world.
Searching for Meaning in Wisdom
Solomon began his vain quest by looking for meaning in wisdom. As already mentioned, he excelled above all others in wisdom. Perhaps he thought he could answer the riddles of life if he could attain enough knowledge. Often we think that if we had the right knowledge or more wisdom, we would know precisely what to do in certain situations, or how to better solve life’s challenges. Yet, life remains unpredictable. Wisdom and knowledge did not satisfy Solomon, as he says, “And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 1:17).
Searching for Meaning in Pleasure
Next, he turned toward a life of pleasure to provide fulfillment. In his lofty position, being the most blessed king of Israel’s past, Solomon could experience virtually anything life offered. So, for a time, he sought to soothe his heart with mirth and wine, partaking of the finest things the world could offer to bring meaning to his existence. Instead, he again found only emptiness, as he stated, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity” (Eccl. 2:1).
Searching for Meaning in Success and Riches
Solomon then ventured down the pathway of worldly success and riches. He accomplished great building projects, acquired servants and possessions beyond his predecessors, and gained riches nearly unimaginable (Eccl. 2:4-8). 1 Kings 10:14-15 tells us, “The weight of gold that came to Solomon yearly was six hundred and sixty-six talents of gold, besides that from the traveling merchants, from the income of traders, from all the kings of Arabia, and from the governors of the country.” Six hundred and sixty-six talents equals about twenty-five tons. At today’s value, that would be nearly 1.5 billion dollars in gold, and apparently that came in every year!
Yet, as explained in 1 Kings 10:15, there was even more wealth flowing into his treasury. Solomon certainly was the richest king of his age (1 Kings 3:13), and some think him to be the richest person in history. Still, his greatness and riches did not satisfy his heart. The result of his quest for meaning once again was met with disappointment. It has been said that money cannot buy happiness, and no one could test that theory more than Solomon.
People today are tempted to think that if they had more money in order to afford a better home, or a better vehicle, or the latest gadgets, they would somehow be happier. That is a false promise. The heart that looks for fulfillment in possessions or searches for security in riches will not be satisfied. Solomon realized that at his death both his kingdom and wealth would be left it to his heir, and there was no guarantee it would endure (Eccl. 2:17-19). Looking for purpose in wealth and success only leads to emptiness.
Solomon continued his search for meaning “under the sun.” From this worldly perspective he lamented the seemingly endless cycle of time and the inescapable reality of death (Eccl. 3:1-22). He recognized that living for self only brings emptiness (Eccl. 4:1-16). He knew that religious activity did not fill the heart (Eccl. 5:1-7). Again, he spoke of the inability of riches to bring satisfaction to the heart (Eccl. 5:8-6:12). Nothing in the world could provide that for which his heart desperately longed!
Solomon shared the conventional wisdom of the natural man “under the sun” in chapters seven through eleven. In this portion of the book, he apparently described a middle-of-the-road approach to life in which one doesn’t stray too much in any one direction. In chapters seven and eight he communicated that no cause is worth too much investment, since all people seemed to share the same fate, whether wise or foolish, and whether righteous or wicked. In chapter nine he pointed to the unpredictable nature of life and the certainty of death.
As Solomon came to this place in his quest for meaning, we see here the inner musings of a heart looking for some meaning to life apart from God. The reasoning in these chapters seems contradictory at times, and there is a pessimistic or defeatist attitude present, but that is precisely what characterizes a heart separated from God.
Back to Wisdom
Solomon started with wisdom as his means to find purpose in life and returned to that later. Perhaps this pictures the person searching for meaning apart from God as going in circles. Solomon praised wisdom over folly, and gave several examples of how wisdom is better, but still he reasoned from a worldly perspective (Eccl. 9:13-11:8). It appears, he stated in this portion of the book, that you are better off to be wise rather than a fool, even though life is empty. Again, this captures the thinking of one trying to figure out life without God.
Toward the end of the presentation that all of life “under the sun” is vanity, or emptiness, Solomon spoke directly to the youth (Eccl. 11:9-12:8). He assumed here the posture of an older man telling the younger to listen up and take heed. He called for the young to understand that living for self in one’s youth is empty (Eccl. 11:9-10). Solomon warned the younger people of his day not to make the same mistakes he did.
He called them instead to “Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth” (Eccl. 12:1). He went on to describe the realities of growing old, as days become difficult, the body shuts down, and death eventually comes (Eccl. 12:2-7). Solomon’s message was that time goes by so fast, serve God while you can! Anything else is vanity (Eccl. 12:8).
The Conclusion of the Whole Matter
At the end of the book Solomon gave the conclusion of his long search for meaning in life. He wrote, “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, For this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, Including every secret thing, Whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14). Living for God, not the world, is man’s all.
Solomon captured three important truths here. First, to find meaning in life, man is to fear, or reverence, the God of heaven. This is the message of Proverbs as well, where it says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, But fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7). Solomon had tried life without God, perhaps because of disillusionment or disappointment, but found only dead ends. When one lives for God, everything takes on new meaning.
The second truth Solomon related is that man is to obey God. For Israel in Solomon’s day, that meant to keep the commandments delivered through Moses and to walk with God according to the covenant of God with Israel. For us today in the Body of Christ, it means to walk faithfully with God, yielding to His Word and walking after the Holy Spirit who indwells each believer, according to the truth God has given in the Dispensation of Grace.
The third truth is that God will judge mankind. No one gets away with wickedness or evil forever. Jesus Christ will judge Israel and the nations soon after His second coming to earth (Matt. 24:36-25:46), and there will be a final judgment of the lost at the Great White Throne at the end of Christ’s millennial reign on the earth (Rev. 20:11-15). Believers today will not take part in any of these judgments. Members of the Body of Christ will instead stand before the Judgement Seat of Christ immediately after the Rapture of the Church. Since we are already justified in Christ, this judgment will determine whether we have faithfully lived for the Lord, and rewards or loss of rewards will be the outcome (see 1 Cor. 3:11-15).
The Purpose of Ecclesiastes
The Book of Ecclesiastes is meant to unshackle us from the illusion that we can find meaning in the things of the world, or that our hearts will be satisfied with anything other than a relationship with our Creator.
We can still enjoy things in this life, but we do so with different perspective and priorities. We do not focus on that which is “under the sun” but on our God and Father.
The Apostle Paul calls us to find our purpose, identity, and destiny in Jesus Christ alone. He writes,
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).
To look for meaning anywhere else is vanity.
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